I wanted to share something with you which has been lingering in my mind the last few months. I grew increasingly dissatisfied with following the daily news. I checked the usual news outlets, read about the latest political debates, followed the economic developments… hell… even occasionally what some of the celebrities were doing. I wanted to learn what is going on in the world. I wanted to learn something new to broaden my horizon. And I wanted to not miss out on the important news and to be able to say something clever in case politics or economics came up.

Sounds like a good plan, right?

Except that it isn’t.

I wanted to learn what is going on in the world. But I felt like I could read article after article and still did not feel like I have an understanding of “what is going on in the world”. I felt it was difficult to relate what I was currently reading to what I had read previously. From the articles on the different websites no overarching narratives developed in my head which gave me a balanced understanding of the big stories like the Arab Spring, the Subprime Crisis or more recently the immigration situation in Europe.

It felt a little bit like I tried to create this 3D image of an issue which would allow me to look at the topic from all angles. But instead, all I got from each article was just a single pixel. With no instructions where to put it.

I wanted to learn something new to broaden my horizon. But instead I felt like I only get a few bits of information thrown my way. Economy 1% down. Britain edging closer to Brexit according to recent polls. 12 things you must do to be successful in life. And often there is not much more to the article than the headline. No signs of deeper thinking or challenging the reader. And even worse, after a few articles on the same topic I started to realize that not only the content starts to repeat itself – they often use the same wording! I guess if news has to get out fast, there is not much time for rewording.

I wanted to not miss out on the important news and be able to say something clever. Guess what? Did not really pay off. I cannot remember the last time when I was following the daily news and thought “Wow, I am glad to be one of the first to know”. Also, so far I was not able to leave anybody in awe with my elaborate analysis of the current situation in the Middle East. Or the immigration situation in Europe. Conversations on the topic only seem to come up at the beginning of business meetings or when the conversation over a beer tends to stall. And they rarely move beyond he headlines. Dammit!

It may just be me here, but I felt more and more that following the daily news is not a good use of my time. This does not mean that I do not read news any more or stopped following the news. I just changed my approach. Instead of reading articles on a daily basis, I read weekly publications (they get a lot more time to do research and actually provide some value). Also, I started to read a lot more blogs (bloggers live off the value they provide to the readers, hence there is a clear incentive). Oh, and I read more books.

But why this rant on daily news? Easy. Starting this blog prompted me to think about what I want to give you in return for taking your time to read this. In other words, what justifies the Interesting  in Hmm… Interesting articles?

And the answer is simple: Content which I would find interesting and worth the time to read myself.

So what is worth my time to read?

I started to research a little how journalists are taught to write. Journalists who want to be good journalists of course. A post by Jeremy Porter about the Five Ws and One H: The Secret to Complete News Stories really resonated with me. The basic questions an article should answer are
  • Who
  • What
  • Where
  • When
  • Why
  • How

However, for me these questions do not equally provide value. Who, where and when are “fact questions” (strictly speaking, what is another fact questions, but it has a different flavour for me so I will treat it separately). Their main aim is to introduce the actors and establish credibility and accountability. They allow everybody to go to the sources and check whether what is written in the articles actually happened. But on its own, these questions don’t really tell me anything.

What is another fact question – but with a different connotation. At least, it tells you something. Something happened, something changed, somebody did something. What gives you the hard facts. I do believe that many of the news articles I talked about earlier cover exactly the four questions we discussed so far. And nothing more. The generic headline would read: “Somebody did something somewhere at some time.”

Just for fun let us look at some recent headlines:

Microsoft Begins Making Progress On Nadella’s Broad Security Vision

Mark Zuckerberg backs Apple in encryption debate

Migrant crisis: Hungary to hold referendum on EU quota plan

Seems to fit the scheme, doesn’t it? Obviously not all the pieces are in there all the time. The what and who are always part of it, where and when sometimes.

What is equal to a data point. It gives you a fact. Nothing else. Every fact is self-contained.

What is equal to a data point. It gives you a fact. Nothing else. Every fact is self-contained.

To me, the answers to these questions are like data points. They merely state a fact. That’s it. There is nothing else contained in this information beyond the fact itself. Just a data point.

I guess this is what I meant with the “pixel in the 3D picture”. These kind of articles just give you one piece of the puzzle. They don’t tell you what the relation with other pieces is or what the exact location in the puzzle is. What does not give you a broader picture of what is going on, what is very self-contained. The hard work is left to you, the reader: to make the synthesis, to make the connection, to find out what this data point actually means in context.

What I am looking for in an article is that the author did some of the hard work as well. It could be that the author points out a new angle to look at the issue which makes me see things I previously read in a different light. It could be that the author brings together two completely separate topics and helps me to connect things which I previously did not connect. It could be that the author teaches me something new about the world. Or myself. An article can give me something in a million ways. But what all these ways have in common is that they somehow need to connect things. They should show patterns, links, contradictions, etc.

This is where we get to what I believe gives the most value in an article: the answer to the questions how and why.

The interesting questions: how and why

Now things become more interesting. Let us start with how. The answer to this question gives you the concrete steps or methods to get from one circumstance to another. A manual how to fix your PC tells you how to get from a broken to a fixed PC. An explanation how to manage your time better will get you from constantly being chased by deadlines to being more in control of your time. A narrative how the migration crisis in Europe developed shed light on the circumstance which led us to over-think the European principle of free travel.

How also gives you answers to what degree or extend something affects something else, e.g. how giving more to other people can affect your happiness. In that sense, how tries to uncover the reason for things. It tries to establish causality.

How is a step-by-step guide to get from A to B.

How explains things. It gives you the concrete method to get from A to B. It helps you understand how one thing affects another. It describes the relation between the data points.

In short: How explains things. Taking our pixel analogy previously, how tells you how to move from one pixel to the next pixel. How gives you an understanding how things are related to each other. I fills in the gaps between two separate pieces of information. It is the equivalent of somebody taking you by the hand and leading you from A to B.

Now I am not saying that the described way from A to B is the best one. Or even the right one (after all, it is often impossible to establish complete causality). All the author is doing is making a case. She did the hard synthesis for you and this is how she sees the world. All she does is that she shows you one possible way and you can decide for yourself whether you agree with it, whether you reject it or whether you agree with parts of it. Either way, it is a clear value add for me since the answer to how allows me to reuse the parts of the synthesis which I agree with. The author carried me some way between A and B and I have to walk less myself to get to my destination. Awesome!

Now onto the most interesting question for me: why. This is arguably the most difficult question to answer. It requires you to take a step back from the issue and look at the whole picture. It requires you to reflect on the reasons for doing something. To find out the meaning behind the action. To think about why we want to achieve something.

In my opinion this question is so incredibly powerful because proper reflection on the why can hugely influence the way we ask the other questions (and therefore also the answer!). Take the simple example deciding what to eat. We all have to eat, so I guess everybody can relate somehow. It is quite easy and natural to jump straight to the what (e.g. pizza) and then the how (e.g. go online, order pizza). Things start to change dramatically once the why comes into play. Ever asked yourself why you want to eat? Weird to ask, right?

If your answer is “because I need to” maybe not too much will change. But what if your answer is for example “because I want to be healthy”. Now the how changes from “How do I get food?” to “How can I get healthy food?”. Maybe you start to realise that just ordering pizza online is not a good option. You start to consider going to the supermarket, a local farmer’s market, buy groceries online or look at different restaurant options for a balanced diet. This in terms affects the what. You are on a mission of actively selecting food which helps you achieving your overall goal. So you start looking for specific what‘s which help you to achieve the mission rather than just jumping to the next best or most convenient what.

Reflecting on the why is very powerful. And it is applicable to almost anything, business and non-business situations. I think nobody gave a better explanation of the power of why than Simon Sinek when he talks about Starting With Why.

Ok, so far we considered the chain why → how → what and were able to see how changing the why can have a huge impact on the other questions. Unfortunately, that is not how things usually are communicated. As Simon points out, the usual way is to focus on the what and how. To get to the why it requires further analysis.

This brings me be back to being a kid. Did you ever play the  “why” game? Asking your parents why to any statement and then why to each answer they give you? It drives them mad because pretty quickly it becomes very difficult to answer the question.

“Mommy, why do I have to go to school?”
“So you can learn something.”
“Why?”
“So you become clever.”
“Why?”
“So you will get a good job and be successful.”
“Why?”
“So you can be happy one day.”

Okay, maybe not the most inspiring example. But good enough for making my point: Each why requires you to back up your statement with reasons. Each time we do this, it exposes the assumptions we make. In the above example, some of the huge assumptions are

  • that you become more clever through learning at school (a valid assumption I hope)
  • that clever people will get a good job (an assumption which I think is not necessarily true)
  • that a good job and success lead to happiness (also an assumption which I think is not necessarily true).
Why lets you reach the first principle

Why allows you to challenge assumptions as you drill down in your reasoning. Eventually, you will reach the first principles, the real motivation for doing something. Understanding the why hugely influences the subsequent how‘s and what‘s you ask. Maybe a better alternative reveals itself.

By drilling down on the why‘s, you will eventually reach the first principle. These are the fundamental truths we hold to be true. The real motivation for doing something. It is the naked essence of the topic. Drilling down to that level allows us to think about the topic from its very foundation. We can decide whether we agree with this truth or not and then take it from there.

And now, as before, making a decision on the why will have huge influences on the subsequent how’‘s and what‘s. We seek out specific what‘s to let us achieve our why which then requires are different how. This can lead us down a completely different path!

Also, it allows us to control our assumptions better. If we start with the motivation that we want our daughter to be happy in life, is the first thing we want for her to get a good job and be successful? Or are there other things we wish for her, like good friends, self-reliance, a sense of curiosity and confidence to figure things out?

Coming from this angle certainly changes the discussion. I believe why is an amazing question to ask. If you take the previous analogy of how showing you the way from A to B, then why would give you an explanation why we actually want to get to B and/or why the proposed way from A to B was chosen over alternative ways. Why casts a judgement on the different data points and paths and makes a case why to do one thing rather than another. You can then decide for yourself which path to choose.

Awesome stuff. But now what?

Ok, all this sounds great in theory, I know. But what relevance does it really have? Is this actually useful?

Truth be told, I think life is a mess and it will not always be possible to reach first principles. It is already difficult enough to figure out the why for things I do (“Why exactly do I procrastinate?”). It will be next to impossible to figure it out if other people, whole groups or entire countries are involved (“Excuse me Mr Putin, why exactly did you annex Crimea?”).

This however does not diminish the value of asking why. As we saw earlier, it exposes some of the assumptions you are making. If an author has a crack at the why and goes to this length to make a case, I think this will be pretty damn useful. Not everything might be 100% clear-cut and I may not agree with everything but I can decide. The author did some of the hard work for me and I just need to pick out the pieces which I agree with. This is what I would then consider worth my time reading.

It is also how I justify the Interesting in Hmm… Interesting. This is the standard I hold myself to when publishing an article (and which is why it may take a while to get some articles out, I apologise in advance). In this article I explained

  • Why I wrote it (I wanted to understand what content I consider worth reading and to which standard I hold myself to make my articles worth your time)
  • How I came to my conclusions (I went through the essential journalist questions – who, when, where, what, how, why – and contemplated their importance to me)
  • What I concluded (how and especially why are killer questions to ask).

Now I only need to figure out how to get this insight out to the journalists of this world…

Till next time!

Written by Tom